New Fries’ ‘Is The Idea Of Us’ LP Is the Anti-Music the World Needs

During the early days of Toronto-based experimental group New Fries, they were stumped about what to call the band. “Each time we played a show, we had a different name,” singer Anni Spadafora remembers. Then, as they were driving, they passed a mangled Burger King sign where only the words “New Fries” were visible, and for lack of better options, that became the band name. “Now, I’ve had to live with this terrible band name almost 10 years later,” Spadafora laughs.

This naming process captures the ethos of New Fries, which is built around challenging pretentious notions about what good music is and who’s entitled to make music. In fact, the band “began kind of as a joke, to be honest,” says Spadafora. When she and her bandmate, drummer Jenny Gitman, started collaborating, they’d never played music before, aside from their own private “fooling around.”

“We didn’t really know how to play our instruments, but it was kind of this really open and transformative space,” she recounts. “It’s been a bunch of friends making music, but because we’re not really musicians, we’re not really interested in traditional songwriting.” Sometimes, during live performances, they’ll even abruptly stop playing and stand in silence in the middle of a song.

Their latest album, Is The Idea Of Us, gives a sound to this philosophy — and is also named in accordance with it. “It was very classic New Fries — we couldn’t decide on a title,” says Spadafora. The title they came up with ultimately reflected the uncertainty that characterizes the band, especially at the time they recorded it, which was during a transition in the membership. After Ryan Carley (synthesizer) left in 2018, the remaining members reshuffled, with Spadafora (formerly on guitar) taking up the bass, Tim Fagan (formerly on bass) getting on the guitar and sampler, and Gitman cutting her drum kit down to three pieces. This way, even after eight years playing together as a band, the members got to be beginners.

“It was almost like this recommitting to being that way and not being seduced by, ‘Oh, we just have to get better at playing or get better at creating this career as a band,'” says Spadafora. “We wanted to kind of recommit to the punk, recommit to being messy non-players, to being open. We’re not trying to win anything; it’s just about experimenting.”

Appropriately, the thirteen songs on the album each buck musical conventions in their own ways. The opening track, “Bangs,” sounds almost like a PSA over a loudspeaker, with siren-like noises over a bass track that speeds up and up as the song goes on. The chaotic sound of “Genre I” evokes the feeling of a crowded subway station, lasting only 28 seconds. And “Ploce,” a single named after Fagan’s late fish, gives off an ’80s dance vibe, with sassy spoken word echoing through the composition before it cuts off abruptly in the middle of a sentence.

The music for the album was written first, then Spadafora was charged with writing the lyrics, which she decided would reflect the overall theme of in-between spaces. “Lily” is about her grandfather’s life as a medium in Lily Dale, New York, referencing the town’s distinctively large population of mediums, as well as its history as a home for suffragists. “This song is about naming that personal history and also questioning its validity,” says Spadafora. “Was he a liar? Was he a saint?”

Another song, “Mt. Tambora,” is about the volcano’s eruption in 1815, which precipitated the following “year without a summer” by reducing global temperatures. After learning that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816, Spadafora was inspired by the idea that creativity blossoms in transition, much like her own band’s. The band intentionally used lots of repetition in the music and lyrics in order to create a feeling of anxiety that characterizes this sense of in-between-ness.

There isn’t any cohesive message Spadafora wants listeners to gain from the album; to the contrary, she hopes it helps them let go of their minds, of the impulse to make sense of things, for a moment — that it invites them into the realm of nonsense, randomness, and chaos that shaped the album and the band itself.

“For me, the spirit of punk music or noise or weirdo music is meant to kind of pull us out of the complacence of our lives,” she says. “The world is often so confusing and demands that we behave in a particular way. To me, these sorts of music worlds feel like this opportunity to be something different, to behave differently from the world, in the sense that I can be really aggressive and ugly and kind of grotesque with my body when I’m performing on stage. There’s literally nowhere else in the world where I can behave that way, and to me, that’s really utopic and inspiring and exciting. There are these opportunities to kind of be a different world.”

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PLAYING DETROIT: Chandra Brings ‘Transportation’ EP to Third Man Records

photo by Kate Young

Chandra Oppenheim was a one-of-a-kind type of child sensation. Unlike today’s child stars that come to fame because of their popularity among their peers (think Justin Bieber or JoJo), Oppenheim was revered in New York’s 1970s underground post-punk scene. As the daughter of famed American artist Dennis Oppenheim, she was influenced more by her father’s contemporaries than her own. At the age of twelve, Chandra released an EP with bandmates Eugenie Diserio and Steve Alexander (of Model Citizens fame), sold out a show at Berklee College, and opened for avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson. The 1980 EP, Transportation, is a snapshot of the new wave/post-punk/noise movement, as told through the unfiltered eyes of a middle-school girl. But instead of sounding juvenile, Oppenheim’s forthright lyricism offers an innocent and universal perspective on everyday life.

In “Kate,” Chandra delivers Talking Heads-esque lyrics depicting the intricacies of young female friendship, societal beauty standards, and the male gaze. It’s a song that’s as brazenly relevant today as it was thirty years ago – a fact that is as astounding as it is unnerving. “Subways” paints a disorienting picture of getting lost underground –  a song as anxiety-inducing as any adult could have written. It seems that Chandra, before the age of thirteen, accomplished a level of artistry that most musicians strive for. But then what?

Now 50, Oppenheim has reissued Transportation for the second time along with a few unearthed recordings from band practice during that time. After teaming up with her Toronto-based band, she’s been performing the songs of her childhood in various venues across North America – including Detroit’s Third Man Records this Friday, February 1st.

The multi-disciplinary artist opened up to Audiofemme about her life between Transportation and now, and how we’re pretty much all just middle school girls at heart.

AF: What do you remember about the time when you recorded Transportation?

CO: The first set of studio recordings… came out in 1980. I was 10 or 11 when we were recording those songs, that first set. I was probably about twelve when we did the second set.

They do feel like two separate things because, I guess at that age, time passes slowly and there are so many things going on. For Transportation – because the other four songs weren’t released until the reissue in 2009 – I think it was what had to come out and it came out in the form of song. Whatever frustrations I had, fears, just trying to figure life out from that ten-year-old perspective. [It had to do] with what was going on around me too, because my dad [was] a big influence in my life and seeing his work and his thought process and these characters that he hung out with that were a part of my life – that was probably the number one influence. That, combined with being at school, and what my life was with my friends or people I had friction with.

AF: How did you feel recording and performing with these adult musicians? Did it feel different or just another part of your life?

CO: It was very natural. My father would pretty regularly have his kids as part of his art pieces. I grew up doing that and this seemed like a natural extension. It was just now me doing my art. In fact, if I hadn’t been doing that, I think something might have felt strange to me.

AF: After you released Transportation and went on tour – was there a point in time where it dropped off or you changed paths?

CO: What I remember is that the demands of school began to interfere with our band practice. There was this fork in the road – either I have all my focus and energy available for school, or I need to kind of let that go a little bit so I can focus on the band. And I chose the school route, thinking that at any moment that I wanted to have that back in my life, I could. And I didn’t realize that that’s very difficult to achieve, whatever the recipe is of whatever you’re creating and connecting it with people. I went to high school and went to college and maybe did a little bit of music during that time. I was probably always writing but I wasn’t in bands or anything like that. And then, after that, basically began decades of doing music because that’s what I did and that’s what I wanted to do, but nothing ever – it didn’t catch. The cogs of the machine did not sync up.

AF: What was the music you wrote in adulthood like? Was it along those punk lines?

CO: Yes, definitely. Especially I would say, lyrically. There was always this – which I share with my father’s aesthetic – this dark humor. Always questioning – the idea was that as a listener, you might not know – is this supposed to be funny? Because it’s really weird and scary but you can’t help but laugh… that’s kind of what I was going for but again I wasn’t trying to for that, it’s just that’s how it came out.

AF: Do you have any recordings from that time?

CO: I do and it is my big next life project to go through my archives and release some music because nothing was ever officially released. I mean there was one band I had where we actually did the whole thing – I think we have 12 songs on that record. We went into a really nice studio and the board was the same one that was used for one of Bowie’s albums. We did it on tape. It was in the ’90s and mixed and mastered, did the whole thing. But then we didn’t really put it out. And then I had this alternative rock boss nova band. We did an EP, we mixed it, didn’t master it so there it sits. That’s just two of the things. I also did stuff solo and I just have my own little recordings of that. They’re probably good quality enough too. If I get them spruced up I can out them out.

AF: Why do you think none of it was ever released?

CO: I wonder as we’re talking about this if there has to be some – I don’t know, there are millions of reasons. For myself, I’m wondering if there just wasn’t that magnetic pull of an audience asking for it that would’ve brought it over that edge to actually complete it.

I did this because I wanted to make it. But If I pressed it back then to CD or – it’s funny because everyone is listening to cassette everything now, and the ’90s band I was in where we mixed and mastered, I do have cassettes of that. So, like, I go to the extent of pressing this to some format, but then what? Who am I gonna give them to or sell them to? But the other thing for me, which I’m learning over time, is that I’m so into the process, that once I have the result, that’s where it ends. Its almost as if I don’t need the outcome. It’s just the process that I’m interested in.

AF: That makes sense. What do you think prompted this resurgence of the Transportation recordings?

CO: So, the history of that is Cantor Records in Canada.  It was a new label and this was the first record they wanted to put out – it was Aaron Levin’s record label. He contacted me out of the blue. Somehow, he tracked me down. I’m not on Facebook, so no one would be able to find me anyway, but it was long before that. So, he found me somehow through my father. That was 2009 – we reissued Transportation, plus the four tracks we unearthed in 1992 were released. Then from there, that’s how I met my current Toronto-based band. It was time to re-press that reissue because it was sold out and that’s when Telephone Explosion contacted us and asked about this deluxe reissue and asked if there were any other tracks and that’s when we brought out those demo tracks.

AF: What’s it like performing these songs you wrote as a pre-teen as an adult?

CO: It’s funny because I was just thinking about that. When I first started playing with the band in 2013-14, I really was in disbelief. The music was live. I had not heard live musicians playing this music in three decades. It was really hard for my brain to believe it. At first, I had to re-learn the songs and I probably hadn’t been singing all that much at that point in my life so I had to get back singing. So, it was challenging and the keys were high so there was that bumpiness to kind of get through. And now we’ve been playing a lot so it feels really comfortable and things are gelling really nicely so now I can relax into it and completely enjoy it and not trying to be remembering lyrics and everything. Really, for all of the songs, I’m able to immediately connect with myself at that time and the feeling of it. It doesn’t feel like someone else wrote them, other than that I wouldn’t be able to write lyrics like that now. I wouldn’t be able to access that strong connection to whatever that creative force is. In my way I do, but it’s years of all this stuff that bogs down the creative process. But other than that, it almost feels like there isn’t a passage of time. In a way, that is me and that’s how I still feel today about things. If not, more so, I mean some of the lyrics feel like premonitions of what we’re currently dealing with.

AF: Have you been writing any new material?

CO: The odd thing is that after writing songs almost every day for my entire life, over the past couple of years it hasn’t been there. Talk about missing something – it’s very strange not to have that. In a way, I don’t have my bearings. Recently, it’s started to come back. There’s a drip and a drop – a little something starting to come out now.

AF: What do you think led to that period of not really writing?

CO: Well, I worked on a performance art piece for ten years. I was still working on music, just not that particular piece. Anyway, that undertaking kind of did me in creatively. It drained me in a way. Normally, I’m fed by creative output but in this case, I guess I needed some time to recuperate. I had to actively end it because it was not serving me. I do have a recording of that – that one did get released actually. But there’s no way to find it. I make these things but then they’re not available. If someone wanted one and asked me for it I’d give it to them but, otherwise, they’re not available.

AF: Will you play any of the music that you wrote in your adult life on this tour?

CO: No, and that’s very intentional. I feel like people who like Chandra and Transportation – I want to keep that as its own thing. So, I will only play things from that time period or things we unearth from then.

Order Chandra’s Transportation EP here and keep an eye out for more tour dates.

LIVE REVIEW: Lydia Lunch Retrovirus @ Rickshaw Stop

The No Wave scene of 1970’s New York City was altogether bowel borne, the sickened spasm of a nihilist made nervous by the violent void of the Lower East Side. It was a pocket of time and space that knew no law nor order. Rather, it was poverty-ridden and putrid, little more than a decaying plane of filth and illness occupied by scum-soaking bums.

Enter Lydia Lunch – No Wave’s mainstay and New York’s bristling brat among rats. A runaway at 16, Lunch fled her family home in Rochester, New York, in favor of the gurgling gutter of NYC, licking the lyrical coattails of Jean Genet, Hubert Selby Jr, Marquis de Sade, and Henry Miller. In an interview for the Women of Rock Oral History Project, Lunch explains that the works of these writers stoked her drive to confront the trials of her own riotous reality, meaning mundanity was no longer a viable existence. Finally, the filth supplied by a sour mouth would be flavored female (although she’d likely contest the confinement of gendered categories).

Unsurprisingly, Lunch’s confrontational energy was highly anomalous among the saluted dudes of the local underground music scene at the time. In fact, many of her younger comrades thought her to be a “teenage terrorist,” with the exception of a few “weird old men,” including guitarist Robert Quine, who collaborated with the likes of Lou Reed, Richard Hell, and Brian Eno.

Thankfully, Lunch would go on to terrorize the masses through many mediums, including spoken word performance, literature, film, and music. A self-described “musical schizophrenic,” she incited delicious din in the ever-seminal No Wave group Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and proceeded to rasp her way through a number of bands over the course of her career: Beirut Slump, 8-Eyed Spy, Harry Crews, Big Sexy Noise, and finally, the live and writhing Retrovirus

Retrovirus is Lunch’s current outfit, along with drummer Bob Bert, bassist Tim Dahl, and guitarist Weasel Walter (also of Cellular Chaos). The self-described “sonic brutarians” recently took the stage at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop. As Lunch rarely makes her rounds in the United States, I was eager to secure a ticket. My excitement was not misplaced.

Shortly after her stealthy entry, Miss Lunch greeted the audience with her special cocktail of snarl and stoicism, oozing authority and anti-appeasement. What occurred next could only be described as an all-out aural confrontation. Whilst Bert maintained a steady tremble on drums, the fingerwork of Dahl and Walter was at once phlegmatic and panic-ridden. Lunch punctuated their sonic thunder with fierce ease, a seeming conductor to the cauldron of clamor.

Towards the close of their all too short-lived set (“Snakepit Breakdown,” “Afraid of Your Company,” and “Mechanical Flattery” among the highlights), Lunch did not pussyfoot the expectation for an encore. “This is our last song, trust me. You can beg all you want. We’re not doing another one. We have one song, we’re doing that.” And so it was over. Quick and dirty, like a racy romp in one of her Richard Kern features. Despite my desire for another dose of din, the nonchalance of her dismissal proved startlingly refreshing in this age of social masquerade and appeasement sleaze. Don’t waste your cheerleading on this one.


ONLY NOISE: Glenn Branca’s Final Ascension

I wound up at the Kitchen sort of by mistake. It was a Tuesday – February 23rd, 2016 to be precise. It had been a year since the worst week of my life, and sitting at my desk after a long day of designing women’s underwear, I longed for a little culture that evening, a little date with myself. So I scrolled through concert listings on Oh My Rockness, hoping for a name to leap out at me. February is not the most happening time for live music in the city, and my backup plan involved a movie and/or overpriced meal for one. But the backup plan wasn’t necessary; as I scanned through the concert listings, a name did leap out at me, and though I wasn’t positive why I recognized that name, I bought a ticket without hesitation.

That name was Glenn Branca, and in the days since his death last week, headlines, tweets, and obituaries can all agree on one thing: if you weren’t familiar with Branca’s music, there’s no way you have escaped the music he’s influenced. His brash guitar symphonies were loved by the likes of David Bowie, and imitated by Sonic Youth. He was a pioneer of the No Wave movement alongside John Zorn and James Chance, and he pushed the boundaries of music, noise, and everything in between. His first two solo records, 1980’s Lesson No. 1 and The Ascension from the following year demolished and restructured the contemporary approach to the electric guitar, rock’n’roll, and classical composition. Branca’s work was loud, dangerous, and so cutting edge that it moved legendary avant garde composer John Cage to feel “disturbed” by it.

Branca was the man that conducted serrated, unnerving orchestras with 100 electric guitars, slapped punk rock into something more upright and threatening with his early band Theoretical Girls, and released early music by Swans and Sonic Youth on his record label, Neutral. His legacy coincides with the explosive art movement in ‘70s and ‘80s New York, but unlike many of his contemporaries, Branca never lost a scrap of relevancein fact, his mystique and ability to stun an audience only seemed to intensify with age. It must have been some peripheral knowledge of all these accomplishments that congealed in my gut when I saw Branca’s name on the concert listings for the evening. Perhaps it was the faint memory of an interview with him I’d read in a copy of The Believer’s 2014 music issue. Either way, I am glad I trusted my gut.

When I entered the Kitchen in Chelsea, the staff was passing out earplugs as guests took their seats. I remember thinking that I’d never been encouraged to wear ear protection at a venue with bleacher seating and a median age of 58, but I figured they knew best. I sat down with my packet of foam plugs and leafed through the pamphlet I’d been handed, which gave the whole event a whiff of the fine art or theater world. I still wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into. And then Branca and his six-musician ensemble crawled out onto the sunken stage.

It was rapturous. Branca, who had stopped playing guitar years prior during Symphony #1, was a dedicated conductor until the end of his life, though his methods of conducting were unconventional to say the least. He used his entire body to communicate with his ensemble, who that night included one drummer, one bassist, and four electric guitarists (one of whom was Reg Bloor, his widow). That evening’s rendition of the Third Ascension was marked by Branca’s spasmodic movements: flits of the wrist, flicks of his hips, and general shimmying that somehow effectively communicated volume, rhythm, and attitude to his performers. It was in fact loud, and so dissonant that it was blissful, like the moment pain becomes cathartic. I remembered a quote from that Believer interview I’d read two years prior, during which Branca said, “If you don’t like loud music, don’t bother with my music.” This, I learned, was a characteristic thing for Branca to say. He was a fabulous curmudgeon, who wore the same black outfit every day, his blazer pocket crammed full of pens like soldiers standing at attention. His teeth were chipped, and he looked like a more brawny, attractive older brother to Shane MacGowan.

In between songs at the Kitchen, while his group fiddled with odd tunings, Branca felt obligated to talk the crowd. His raspy voice and mischievous demeanor felt instantly familiar, perhaps because he seemed a kindred spirit to Tom Waits, or perhaps because he was simply the embodiment of the crotchety old man I hope to become one day. In an attempt to fill the silence, Branca told the audience, apropos of nothing, about the best hot dog he’d ever eaten. It was on a hoagie roll, not a bun. He talked some trash about John Zorn, and introduced his wife Reg Bloor, who seemed delightfully peeved by his antics.

I left the kitchen that night with my mind completely blown open, a side effect of the shrapnel storm Branca’s ensemble hurled toward the bleachers. Walking to the train I felt like I was floating, or maybe vibrating like a struck tuning fork. It was the same feeling of intoxication I had only experienced once or twice before: watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen for the first time; seeing Diamanda Galas live at a temple on Halloween. Considering the weight of my experience at the Kitchen, I checked weekly to see if Branca and his ensemble was playing in town. I did this in 2017, when they performed at BRIC, and I remember feeling particularly lucky to live in a city where one minute I could be sat at my bedroom desk reading, and the next I walking to see one of the most original and exciting musical performances in existence.

The week before Glenn Branca died, I typed his name into Oh My Rockness’ search bar to see if he had any upcoming gigs. I didn’t know he had throat cancer, but I wasn’t surprised by the news when I found out. Upon hearing about his death, I felt both devastated that I’d never experience his music live again, and immensely grateful that I got to experience it at all. Glenn Branca was a New York treasure you had to really dig for, if not allow yourself to stumble upon, and like all of the best things New York has to offer, he was liable to disappear at any time. Sadly, that day has comebut while the man is no longer with us, his work will be obliterating musical norms for decades to come.